Project Blue Box, Part Two

Is it interesting?  Is it overwritten?  Is it all going to hang together, or hang separately?

Your guess is as good as mine, Bloggers;  but here’s some more of it:


Mystery Machines: Trash Culture, Cargo Cults, and the Escape from Participation Mystique

Part Two: “Molotov Milk-Bottles”

It’s a big difference, between “apparently subversive” and actually subversive. Fredric Werthem did his best to stop the first, but couldn’t even anticipate the second. Well, not exactly a big surprise, there: since he really couldn’t see just what it was, that was happening right in front of his eyes…

But we did, didn’t we?

Step up to the doorway of the Seventies, and notice the breeze blowing through it: that’s the fresh air of rebellion, my friends. Young punks raised on this trash culture stuff, who know its codes, are getting ready to trashify it still more. The magical stuff, the wish-fulfillment whose microcosmic logic forms an intersection with the real world, that’s what they’re experts in…and somewhat removed from the older storytellers’ desire to inculcate, or perhaps incubate, the technosocial worldview, they are instead ready to crash that storytelling mode together with its opposite, and see what comes out. This is where my tinkertoy-model of alternative logic was formed, so I know it well: the champion of rationality gets undermined. The schoolboy knowledge stops working, even though the schoolboy metaphors continue. Well, and they don’t just continue

…So much as they take on a life of their own. Werthem would’ve been horrified, if he’d even been able to make heads or tails of it: because the official process of education will take decades yet to overcome even the smallest part of its own inertia, but the alter-pedagogy has already begun to shift with the times. Television cartoons may continue to reinforce the orthodoxy of scientific context until another generation of creators has come and gone (with a few early exceptions, of course), but comic books have already dropped the scientific context in favour of literary context: suddenly it isn’t ninth-grade chemistry that serves as the key to understanding the ethical dimension of superhero punch-outs, nor even eleventh-grade civics, but it’s all a mishmash of Melville and Malzberg, Socrates and Salinger, Camus and Chandler, Arendt and Asimov. Leibniz and Lovecraft, if you will.

Kant and Kurtzman?

Anyway it’s a mess, whatever it is, as the quick bright things of the Forties come to confusion in the Sixties. We are still taking the bridge to adult thinking from the shores of participation mystique, but it’s a different landing we’re making — a different kind of participation we’re learning to escape from. Trash culture: in which it’s no longer such a priority to make fine discriminations between what is real and false, but instead the thing to do, the competency to master, is how to preserve one’s ability to act even when such fine discriminations can’t be made — when the very notion that they can be made may itself smack of absurdity and lead to delusion. Derrida and Dick? Kirby and Lee and Ditko didn’t know what they’d started, or more properly what they’d jumped onto, in the early Sixties at Marvel: “pop art”, indeed! Those college-age readers of which Stan was so proud were attracted by something, sure enough, and if it wasn’t the flashy costumes it seems fair to say it just may’ve been the greater engagement with the text, which he himself went to great lengths to encourage as an editor-in-chief. Well, Marvel’s comics never taught grade nine chemistry either, as it happens: Green Lantern’s ring was a magical agency that allowed the lessons of the classroom to conquer the universe, but Reed Richards’ crazy machines were all things that used the “idea” of science as an excuse — an excuse for impressionistic psychodrama that couldn’t be staged in a world of mere rockets and rules, because it relied heavily on the species of science-fictional cautionary tale that pits man against his own growing technical capacity: Man vs. Future, if you like. So when two essentially-magical powers clashed in this mode, it wasn’t to show the superiority of rational thought to symbolic assertion, but to show Man caught in the middle of different kinds of symbolic assertions, and the conflicting implications that his own rational powers carried with them…e.g., once the lessons of the classroom are finally in charge, how will they rule? And how can their rule be restrained, or at least ameliorated? In other words, this was less Scooby-Doo and more Star Trek…which is to say, again, that it was less superhero comic and more monster comic, less DC and more EC, in its moral construction. What Will Man Become? It’s a pretty central question: how many hyperevolved humans or terrifyingly-advanced aliens left Earth for space or other spacelike dimension, back in the early Marvel days? In the Seventies and through the Eighties, “leaving the enclosure” because one was too big for it became something like a fetish of the company’s creative culture, and the Boddhisatva Space-Being became such an anchor-point for superhero drama that it actually lost its force through becoming a cliched convention. Likewise the unique problem of Marvel supervillains, always becoming overloaded by power, or reaching that most thrillingly evocative state of comic-book science, “critical mass”. The tinkertoy logic-model goes awry, here, as all its metaphors escape from their cages — Julie Schwartz, in his Campbellian way, would never have permitted “critical mass” to be about anything but nuclear reactors, just as nefarious wielders of power were to be overcome by heroic fists in his scheme, rather than monkey’s paws. Because “what will Man become” was never the question at hand, for him…

…But over at his competitor’s place, it was always at hand, somewhat in the manner of the apocalypse. It’s funny to think now of Stan Lee’s story, how he called up Jack Kirby one day and said “what if the FF fought God?”, only to have Jack produce Galactus…because what were the Marvel heroes ever fighting but gods? Terrifying powers from the Outer Dark (and the Inner Space!) molested the poor bastards day and night, and to beat them they had to employ somewhat…ah, questionable tactics. When the Skrulls arrive on Earth in FF #2, it isn’t the invincible laws of optics that beat them, but it’s comic-book pages…but then comic books are Mystery Machines too, aren’t they? Reed Richards never builds a Cube so Radical that it can encompass a genuine principle of science, instead only building up cranky edifices of adamantly comic-booky science, science that operates beyond the ken of the classroom physics lesson in the same way Timely/Atlas’ monsters operated beyond the ken of the biology or indeed even geography lesson. Things Man Was Not Meant To Know never was such a vexed matter as in Marvel’s flagship title: because sometimes Man was okay if he wanted to know them, but sometimes He wasn’t, and it took a guide as coercively authoritative as Reed Richards to specify where that line really was. In other words it all came down to interpretation, and then the interpretation all came down to a somewhat confusing “scientific morality”…which was the exact joint where Marvel’s tinkertoy-logic did its real-world-intersecting, in that parsing of fine differences: what was to be taken as real vs. what was to be taken as false, or what was to be taken as hubristic vs. what was to be taken as humble. What was to be taken as dangerous, and what was to be taken as adventuresome. “Real” science would’ve only gotten in the way of all that, of course…!

Nevetheless, “all that” was still playing by the basic alter-pedagogic rules of engagement, at that point: in that it was still technosocially instructive in a conventional way. Because Reed Richards was a trustworthy arbiter of where acceptable science left off, and unacceptable science began, that lesson he gave (oh, again and again he gave it!) was of tremendous preparatory value. Learn your lessons one by one and diligently; respect your teachers and heed their advice; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It didn’t have to be about the overall “context of science” in terms of physical relationships; moving a little off the centre of the target, it was still in the gold so long as it was about the context of science in terms of moral relationships.

Except: moving off the centre once, implies that you can move off it again…and so whether they wanted to or not, whether they could possibly have intended to or not, by finding a slightly more challenging way to be “apparently” subversive, Marvel eventually invited a genuine subversiveness into its trashy storytelling business. And that’s what made them; that’s the train they jumped onto. All those college-age readers they gained…

What made them so darn interested in the FF, or the Hulk, or Spider-Man?

Only the changing times, perhaps. Hey, when Dennis Hopper puts Captain America into Easy Rider, you know you’ve somehow gone anti-Establishment on yourself, don’t you? Though you might never have planned it; but then, that’s the power of engagement with text. Sooner or later, they must’ve figured out what they’d done. Myself, I think Stan probably didn’t think about it all that carefully, just loved riding that wave; but I think Kirby saw it all the way, and liked it for what it was. And Ditko plainly thought it needed a corrective — A-is-bloody-A! — so we might assume he saw it too. But seeing is one thing.

And being is quite another. So when the Quick Bright Things who had grown up on the alter-pedadogical trash-culture products of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties made it in through the door of Marvel Comics in particular (and if one were to list even just those, this article would end up being a good deal longer than it is), they might’ve begun by being off-centre but they moved quickly to redefining where the centre was…and got in the habit of taking it with them wherever they went. For them, “scientific morality” was a poor use of the tools at hand: the heroes with the feet of clay and the cosmic or moral forces that beset them, and the Mystery Machines too (if indeed a difference can be made out, there), were such perfect vehicles for expressing doubt, uncertainty, and controversy that to leave the champions of rationality un-undermined seemed an impossible thing to justify — an excellent way to chase an irrelevance that was in exact philosophical opposition to what drew you to the field in the first place. Thus, the message of the Seventies: science is just a bunch of guys with suede elbow-patches telling you what to do, so they don’t have to realize they don’t know what to do. But science is not the only hierarchy; and indeed, what is one supposed to do if one doesn’t fit in to that hierarchy? One can only find another, insist on another…introduce another. On a base level, of course, license is given to the individual-psychology-based use of the superheroic forms prevalent at this time only on the grounds that we gotta make money — if The Exorcist is big, we’ll make a superhero who does exorcisms, if Six Million Dollar Man is big then we should do a cyborg as a superhero — hey, we’ll try anything — but these excursions into fleetingly-popular genres, like Marvel’s invocations of the “idea” of science, were only excuses for what their new talent really wanted to do. Which was: trouble the characters.

Trouble the “universe”.

Trouble the society?

I mean, it seems grandiose when I say it like that. But, what was supposed to happen here, really? Here we have a clutch of extremely talented and well-educated youngsters working in the field they grew up on and loved, a low field with few barriers to entry, but still a field that had been built up into quasi-respectability by their own heroes of writing and cartooning, and what’s perhaps better than that built up into a state of vitality and relevance and social efficacy. Alter-pedagogy? It took off like a rocket sled under the various pens of these young turks, and we weren’t doing electronics anymore…as I said, I remember it well. It got Fortean, sometimes. But the really interesting thing about it, was that it finally did take on the demimondean aspect that Werthem had so feared…while in the same moment it achieved what even he probably thought was a pretty far-out goal, in that it normalized the demi-monde by situating an ordinary person in it, and inviting them to adapt to it, engage with it, consider how they sat with it. And never mind that this “ordinary person” dressed up like a gooney-bird at night and fought crime; well in fact that classic superheroic character-as-action convention served only to raise existential questions in the mind of the reader, as they did in the mind of the character. Am I so different? the crazy person with the nylon tailfeathers asks himself…and then by virtue of our identification with him, we at home wonder the same. Even if we ourselves are the people we’re wondering about.


Gone is the perspectival certainty of Robin the Boy Wonder!

Gone forever, one must think, and perhaps must hope. No longer the simplistically aspirational worldview-totem he once was, Robin has fallen into your engagement-with-text too, and must deal with you more authentically as a subject. And poor deluded Werthem would never have seen this, but…Robin must then struggle not to be broken by this new understanding, you see?

And therein, of course…lies an entirely new course of instruction for the reader.

One which continued far past the Seventies, and even the Eighties. Even the Nineties.

In fact we are just coming up to our final paper now.

Hope you studied, Reader!


10 responses to “Project Blue Box, Part Two

  1. So…this is part of the Plan too, but I’m really not sure now if it’ll all come together like I want it…

    Final one of these is called “Magic Mirror”.

  2. Also, I gotta admire my own restraint in not putting in yet another link to Jim Roeg’s fantastic MTIO post…but if anyone hasn’t already seen it, it’s over there on the sidebar in the Seven Soldiers section, and it’s called “Two Earth-Clotted Hands”.

    Maybe my most-linked post ever, ya think?

  3. Even if it doesn’t all hang together in the end, you can’t say something as interesting as this isn’t worth it anyway; looking forward to part 3. Of course, I haven’t quite gotten THIS ONE all soaked in yet, but I’ve got a long day of apartment hunting ahead of me tomorrow, with a boring two-hour-plus drive to get there and another one back, so I’m pretty grateful to have SOMETHING to think about other than “My exit’s in fifty miles…forty-nine miles…”

    That “few barriers to entry” thing, though, is the thing I find the most fascinating about 70s Marvel. Gerry Conway was like 19 when he wrote Amazing Spider-Man, Chris Claremeont started out thinking he was just cashing checks waiting for an acting career to take off…

  4. It is fascinating…and instructive. All day I’ve been wondering what we have going on now, that’s what like they had going on then. I mean, the Internet changes everything, of course, but the Internet is also real big

    Today I’ve been thinking about how someone could make a living at blogging. Not me, you understand; I don’t care. But some notional “somebody”, some small-fry blogger who (say) is into comics/music/movies just like everybody else…I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if it could work? But it would have to work differently from the way it works now…

    Sorry, that’s a digression; that stuff’s nowhere near ready to go, yet. Anyway, yeah: the low barriers. And yet look at the level of motivated talent that came over them! I said on Twitter, you think about this for a while and you can practically feel the 70s guys burning to get in there and start doing their thing, to start exploring their own voices. You can see that kind of dumb passion today too, but I don’t think you can see it in the corporate sandbox. Unfortunately you can’t just ignore the corporate sandbox, because it’s an oligopoly and it’s too big to fail…at least, too big for comics stores to survive its failure. Then again, it’s failing anyway: no more young Gerbers and Moores dying to write Superman out there, are there?

    Whoo, maybe that sounded a little cynical…

  5. And, jeez, you’ve got to look for a bigger apartment in a town two hours away? In Canadian miles, that’s practically from here to Halifax…

  6. SMALLER apartment, unfortunately! But: better city, better job, because apparently that rumor about children costing money to raise is ALL TRUE.

    But as for there being no young Gerbers itching to take this stuff on today…I might not be catching your meaning precisely, but I’d rather thought there are too MANY. I mean, everyone SAYS they’d like to write for the big two, but even if you discounted all the idle “Wouldn’t it be cool?” people and the people who simply don’t have the imagination or the technical skills to do the job, I’d bet you’d have just as large (if not larger), just as passionate (if not moreso) and just as talented (you get the idea) a pool of people as in the 70s.

    The problem is all that all those people I just discounted would pitch ANYWAY, and then how do you wade through all that to get to the good stuff? (And I’m not suggesting or promising that the stuff I’d submit wouldn’t be just as terrible as the worst of it, of course!) In the 70s, with that still-only-quasi-respectability you mention, that pool is so much smaller. If you held totally-open-to-anybody submissions in the 70s, how many adults would you get? Even if it’s more than I’m assuming, today you’d get almost nothing but.

    So the current system is in place, where you have to prove yourself by doing self-published or small-press stuff. Which isn’t a bad system by any means (again, I’m certainly not suggesting totally-open-submissions; I wrote a proposal for Bill Jemas’ planned Epic line same as anyone before it got killed, but I can’t imagine it would’ve actually WORKED like they said it would), but it does mean by the time you get to the big leagues, you’re less likely to be a wild-eyed twentysomething.

    I mean, we think of Dan Slott being a relatively “new” writer, but he wrote the lead story in MIDNIGHT SONS UNLIMITED #9 from 1995 (look, I had my reasons for buying this comic at the time)! It took him a long time to get from that to Spider-Man and the Avengers.

  7. Not that I know what I’m talking about, but…

    Smaller pool in the Seventies, but more committed I think. While, paradoxically, more loosely committed. Gerber said if he was twenty-five today he’s just go Internetty, forget the Big Two…he’d go where the most freedom and fewest barriers were. You know at some point I think I will really have to get into the Hollywood connection, what so many of the Seventies Punks did after their comics dreams collapsed…or, not collapsed, but where they went to make a better buck in a less contractually-dodgy place. But, you say it yourself: there’s so many more pitches to wade through. Stan wrote something in the Sixties, I think it was called “There’s Money In Comics!” — today everyone knows there is. And the bar, let’s remember, for how skilled or imaginative you have to be to even do this job…well, that bar hasn’t been raised too much — the Seventies guys, a lot of them cleared it by a mile.

    Not to say there’s no talent out there that couldn’t clear it by an even greater height, and like you I approve the “get published first” thing…except, why is it that so many creators who prove themselves so awesome in their “get published first” phase, bottom out so bad when they hit the Big Two these days? I did forget to mention the Seventies artists, a lot of whom were significantly older than, anyway, Gerry Conway…and the Big Two can still draw in artists who are bound to produce great work on just WHATEVER…but the writing’s no good, or where the writing’s good the conception’s bad, or where they’re both good (and sometimes it really, really IS!) it doesn’t mean that the same writer’s soul isn’t gonna be killed on a different title, or that it isn’t gonna show when it is. So many writers I have such enormous respect for at the Big Two who can be SO inconsistent…I think Gerber would really not be there if he was a young man today, and as for Moore…pfft! No way, he’d be a webcomic billionaire by now or something. Passion: I mean, I’ve read some fun-on-the-blog pitching from you, if it were me I’d hire you long before Dan Slott (sorry, Dan! I have enjoyed many of your comics, and your command of your craft is both impressive and undoubtedly hard-won, no disrespect but these are different criteria!), but could you do what Dan does, and say “sure, love to work on the new edgy doomed-to-cancellation Alpha Flight, no problem”?

    Sorry, that all reads kinda jerky, I plead extreme hunger and too much caffeine. I won’t erase it because, well, I’ve written far jerkier stuff…

  8. Pingback: Project Blue Box, Part Three « A Trout In The Milk·

  9. Pingback: Project Blue Box: Epilogue « A Trout In The Milk·

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